Driven by Silicon Valley tech companies and hip startups, the open plan office has become the dominant form of office fit out across a range of industries. In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that finding a cubicle based office these days feels a bit like stepping back in time.
And it’s not just open plan offices. Trends away from privacy and isolated working spaces towards open collaborative spaces have led to “hot desking” and the proliferation of co-working spaces.
Too often, however, productivity experts and business gurus tout the benefits of open plan, collaboration-focused workspaces without adequately addressing the downsides. So, let’s have a look at both the good and the bad that comes with an open plan office.
What is an Open Plan Office?
In an open plan office, the desks and workstations tend to be positioned together rather than separated out into individual cubicles or offices. These spaces are generally more open, with employees sharing desks and working together.
This kind of layout can include large open tables for workgroups, a few clusters of cubicles, separate meeting rooms or private work spaces, and open lounge areas and break spaces.
The idea behind the open space office is that breaking down walls and partitions (both physically and metaphorically) will improve workplace communication and team building while reducing the perception of a workplace hierarchy.
While the theoretical benefits tend to be linked to improvements in concepts like “culture”, “synergy” and “innovation” the reality is that an open plan office, just like a cubicle-style office, will benefit some people, while creating a detrimental work environment for others.
To get the most out of an open plan layout, you need to understand the pros and cons and determine what kind of office fit out best suits your company and culture.
Open Office Pros
The benefits of an open plan layout are mainly to do with communication, culture and camaraderie. In theory, this sort of design can help with productivity, collaboration and innovation.
- Better communication
Without the physical barriers of walls and partitions, employees are more likely to engage, interact and communicate. Improving communication can help with collaborative work, creativity and innovation, while fostering better working relationships.
When people spend more time working closely together, they are more inclined to discuss work, bounce ideas off one another, share insights and so on. In theory, the workplace will benefit from a greater variety of shared perspectives as teams and departments are more likely to interact, improving the flow of information and ideas across the business.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that some recent research suggests that open plan offices, and business technology that facilitates communication and collaboration, are producing less meaningful interaction, not more.
- Floorplan flexibility
A traditional cubicle-based workplace doesn’t make the best use of the available space and can be difficult to rearrange when there’s turnover or team changes. With office space at a premium and smaller, growing or agile companies looking to minimise their physical footprint (as well as rental costs), an open plan office space makes sense. Doing away with bulky cubicles allows you to make better use of the floor space and fit more people in without sacrificing comfort and space.
Open plan layouts are much easier to adapt as necessary as well. Whether you need to accommodate a freelancer or temporary staff member, or you need more space as your company grows, an open plan design provides much more flexibility as to how you use the available floor space. It also makes it much easier to move things around and adapt to your changing requirements.
- Better aesthetics
Cubicles can make an office feel smaller and more congested. With an open plan layout, you get a great sense of space, cleaner lines, a better flow of natural light and all-round better aesthetics.
An open plan layout is also more on-trend and is often used by businesses to project a progressive and hip image.
- Cost effective
Open offices are more cost effective than traditional cubicle style layouts. The office fit out for an open plan layout is significantly cheaper than a more traditional layout because it requires fewer partitions, walls and desks.
Open Office Cons
Too often, companies implement open office layouts based on the perceived benefits laid out above. However, there are a range of downsides to this type of design, which should be carefully considered.
- Noise and distractions
While better workplace communication should be counted as a benefit, more communication isn’t necessarily a good thing. The most common complaint about open plan office layouts relates to the increase in noise and distractions. With everyone working together, it can be difficult to concentrate if there’s a lot of conversation, phone calls and other distractions going on around you.
If your job regularly requires high levels of concentration, working in an open plan office can be seriously detrimental to both your productivity and the quality of your work.
- Lack of privacy
There will always be situations at work where you need a little privacy. Whether it’s for a sensitive conversation, a private client phone call, or you work with sensitive material, finding that privacy in an open plan office can be challenging.
- Uncomfortable working situations
One negative of open plan offices that rarely gets discussed is the implicit assumption that everyone likes to work the same way. A significant proportion of office workers, especially the more introverted people, often prefer working in solitude. It allows them to concentrate better and can significantly reduce workplace stress and anxiety.
- It won’t solve all your problems
For companies that are trying to improve communication and collaboration among employees, it’s important to remember that refitting the office won’t magically generate a more open, collaborative working environment. An open plan office makes it easier for teams to share and work together, but this kind of communication is more a product of business culture than physical layout.
If your communication problems stem from issues with company culture or management, then these issues will need to be addressed before you can expect any kind of office reshuffle to have an effect.
The best solution
While most businesses these days tend to favour open plan office layouts, it’s essential to factor in some private and quiet working spaces to mitigate the inevitable negatives of the open plan design. This will provide privacy and a distraction-free workspace for those who need it.